Starbucks, Race and the Culture of Criticism

Lance Morgan

We live in a culture of criticism so it's to be expected that Howard Schultz is facing a crescendo of complaint for his decision to have Starbucks' baristas spice up their customers' lattes with a discussion on race relations in America.

Like Starbucks coffee, the foaming at the mouth comes in all shapes and sizes: it's a PR stunt that's doomed to fail; the baristas aren't qualified to lead the discussion; customers don't want to have it; it's ridiculous to address this subject in a matter of seconds over a coffee counter. The list goes on.

I demur. It’s unseemly for those who us who constantly bemoan our polity’s inability to have adult conversations (and I mean me) to complain when someone wants to encourage them.

Yes, the idea might not work. It might backfire. Some customers might be irritated. Some verbal, or physical, arguments might ensue. (For a really good essay on the pros and cons, see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s piece on

But maybe some constructive interactions will result. Maybe some stereotypes will be shattered. Maybe some common ground might be found among some uncommon pairings.

Anyone who has a better idea and a more public platform is welcome to try something else. In the meantime, as communicators, shouldn't we applaud the attempt at communications?

PS -- There is plenty of room for disagreement here so in the spirit of encouraging dialogue, please fire away.


Getting the Most Out of SXSWedu

Jennifer Hendrickson

After months of anticipation and marketing emails, SXSWedu – a component of the South by Southwest family of conferences focused on promoting creativity and social change in the field of education – is right around the corner. It’s time to dust off your cowboy boots and connect with edu-friends and colleagues from across the country. Before you go, consider these tips for maximizing your time in Austin:

  • Talk to Everyone: How often are you surrounded by educators and members of the public, private and nonprofit sectors focused on education? Take every opportunity to ask journalists what they're writing about and tell teachers about the campaign you're launching. The best feedback or inspiration might come from the person with whom you're sharing a power outlet between sessions.
  • Never Settle: If a session doesn’t live up to your expectations or capture your interest, duck out and join another. It may be uncomfortable to leave, but there will be too many exciting alternatives to stay in a session that disappoints. Give yourself permission to find those second-choice sessions that might prove more engaging. 
  • Think Before Tweeting: Don’t just be a part of the social media conversation around the conference – add something to it. Live tweeting memorable quotes from popular sessions is less likely to earn likes and re-tweets than paying attention to the discussion – offline and online – and then updating or replying with original thinking. In other words, being thoughtful is more important than being first.
  • Get Out: Austin is known for its distinctive food, music and culture. Find time to leave the Hilton and Convention Center and explore city before it’s overtaken by Interactive, Music and Film. At the very least, wander a few blocks and check out the storefronts and structures brands are building for those festivals.

Above all, enjoy! I’ll see you at #SXSWedu.


The Op-Ed Takes Some Sharp New Directions

Bob Brody

Photo by Shannon Hauser

In 1921, Herbert Bayard Swope, the editor of The New York Evening World, created the first-ever page in a newspaper that would be devoted strictly to opinions. Previously that page, appearing opposite editorials, ran book reviews, updates on high society and, yes, obituaries.

“It occurred to me that nothing is more interesting than opinion when opinion is interesting,” Swope wrote. So he “decided to print opinions, ignoring facts.”

Talk about starting something big. Today, the industrial opinion complex is exploding, with opinions delivered daily via newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites.

Still, the op-ed has undergone a major makeover in the 96 years since, with certain trends unfolding. As someone who has teamed up with clients to develop op-eds over 20-plus years, I’ve noticed that opinion pieces have taken three decidedly new directions. Herewith, some advice:

1. Do your homework. That edict from Mr. Swope about “ignoring facts?” Forget it. Your average op-ed today is more intensively reported and more rigorously researched, than ever before. And arguably no research is more highly regarded than original research, ideally presented as an exclusive. Opinion alone is no longer enough, so no authors merely pontificating from Mount Olympus need apply. Indeed, opinion pieces in some instances resemble reportage. For any opinion piece to be regarded as reliable, much less persuasive, it must be assembled from facts.

2. Download some data. No, this is a different proposition from simply doing research. With algorithms and predictive analytics ever available, everything in the universe is suddenly regarded as quantifiable. The mantra is metrics. Sometime soon I fully expect someone to claim that top-tier op-eds last year contained, say, 37% more data than in the previous year.

3. Get personal. Nothing is more convincing than first-person testimony, a this-happened-to-me scenario. Back in 2005, John Whitehead, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to accuse New York attorney general Elliot Spitzer of threatening him by phone. Memorable. Shortly after, a former Goldman broker came out in The New York Times to chronicle the culture of greed he perceived that motivated him to quit the firm. Equally unforgettable.

While we're at it, one last tip here: aim for perfect. Standards for top-tier opinion pieces are more exacting than ever. The op-ed you submit for consideration should be as close as possible as good to go, or else nobody will even give it a second look. On the whole, editors at important national outlets accept pieces that require only minimal editing. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for love at first sight.


PT Breakfast Club: What’s On Our Plate in 2015

Jessie DuPont

From moms of school-age children to food manufacturers to farmers to federal government officials, everyone has a voice when it comes to what we eat – and a social media megaphone to share their beliefs and concerns. With battles brewing over GMOs, added sugars and menu labeling, and the release of the highly anticipated Dietary Guidelines, our plates will be full of food policy issues in 2015.

At this year’s inaugural Powell Tate Breakfast Club event, Helena Bottemiller Evich, food and agriculture reporter for POLITICO; Chase Purdy, nutrition and agriculture reporter for POLITICO; and Jerry Hagstrom, founder and executive editor of The Hagstrom Report and National Journal columnist, led a spirited discussion about the top food, nutrition and agriculture issues on the table.

In the current political environment, the panelists said it will be very difficult to pass standalone legislation such as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, and projected the most interesting developments taking place in Appropriations. Meanwhile, they’re watching agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tackle food safety and food waste issues, among others.

The panelists also agreed the school lunch debate will continue with industry groups battling over market share. Meanwhile, many Americans feel strongly that the federal government should stay out of their kitchens and school cafeterias, and are wary of policies that purport to shape their family’s diet. Most likely, the panelists hypothesized, these fights will be waged at the hyper local level on a school-by-school basis.

Additionally, although the panelists noted an abundance of opinion in the food and nutrition dialogue, they lamented a dearth of solid reporting rooted in science and facts. This creates an even more urgent need for us to identify opportunities for credible experts – physicians, dietitians, researchers – to shape the dialogue and steer consumers clear of misleading “junk science.”

To stay abreast of these issues as they unfold, follow us on Twitter at @PTFood.


Too Much Information

Lance Morgan

Photo by Allen Brewer

Those of us living inside the Beltway are consumed by political minutiae. By consuming a daily diet of dyspeptic discourse about policies and candidates, we believe we gain insight into which party is gaining momentum and which candidate is best positioned to claim the White House in 2016.

But an interesting piece in the current National Journal calls into question the predictive benefits of all this information and jabbering. Alan Abramowitz, a professor of Political Science at Emory University, has created the “Time for Change” model for predicting presidential winners. Since 1988, he has correctly called the popular vote in each presidential election.

Incredibly, the model is based on only three variables: the incumbent president’s approval rating, the GDP in the 2nd quarter of the election year and the number of terms the president’s party has occupied the White House.

So we yammer on about the size of the media buy in Montana’s 3rd Congressional District (trick factoid), or the new app that allows campaigns to post campaign ads in your cereal bowl (trick factoid, I think) or the other communications wizardry that dominate modern campaigns and coverage, and very little of it actually matters. The quality of the candidates and the campaigns, and other variables, do make a difference, but only at the margins.

Although political pros don’t buy the theory – probably because acceptance would deny them the opportunity to buy the items their current incomes now allow -- it does make some sense.

The vote for president is intensely personal. Do I like the guy in the White House (yes, guy, until Hillary or Elizabeth or Sarah get elected)? How’s the country doing? Haven’t the Ds or Rs been around too long? Answer those questions, Abramowitz said, and you can pretty much guess who’ll win.

Abramowitz handicaps the 2016 race in the piece, (“Predictive Intelligence,” Feb. 14). It’s worth a read. As Mark Twain once said: “Interesting, if true.”


A Digital Strategist Reacts to a Teenager’s View on Social Media

Lauren DiPaola

Millennials will soon surpass Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest demographic group, so it’s no surprise that marketers are showering them with attention. With a population of approximately 75 million, Millennials represent almost 25 percent of the U.S. population. By 2017, these digital natives are projected to spend $200 billion annually, and brands are clamoring to understand how best to market to the largest consumer generation in history. 

A recent series of posts by teenager Andrew Watt (Part 1 and Part 2) have garnered industry attention and reignited a dialogue on Millennial use of social media. I was particularly struck by the reaction of social media scholar, Danah Boyd, to Watt’s opinions of the most popular social platforms. While Watt shares his observations on his generation’s use of social media, Boyd’s “old fogey” rebuttal reminds us that broad generalizations can be dangerous. These differing perspectives highlight the fact that Millennials are hardly a homogenous bunch, and the conversation underscores several strategic imperatives for developing an effective content marketing program:

1) Establish a platform strategy - With the list of social platforms growing by the day, it is crucial to define (and redefine) marketing campaign goals and continually reassess social media platforms that resonate with target audiences. Focusing efforts and resources on audience-relevant social platforms helps ensure strategic pay-off and improves the chances of developing a responsive community for your campaign. We must continuously evaluate our approach to ensure we are tracking with our audience interests.

2) Stand out in the crowd - People produce and consume A LOT of content, so social news feeds are crowded. On average, there are 1,500 stories that could appear in a person’s News Feed each time they log onto Facebook. People want to be intrigued and entertained, so successful marketing depends on creative campaigns that stand out and immediately captivate your target audience. Rather than creating messages that appeal to “insiders,” use focus groups and market research to help inform your creative approach.

3) Understand content curation - As we already know, content is king. Social platform algorithms help users personalize their feeds to feature content that will generate the most engagement. Community insights either gathered through research or through social platform analytics (like Facebook and Twitter) allow you to tailor your messaging and increase your engagement opportunities. It’s not a one-size fits all space -- unique messaging based on audience interests helps drive campaign success.

We live in an age of almost limitless audience data that affords marketers the opportunity to personalize creative and increase campaign effectiveness. As marketers look to engage an extraordinarily diverse and social media savvy population, it’s never been more important to do your homework and invest in a strategy that affords your brand flexibility to adapt as key audiences – and social trends – evolve. 


Jokes are No Laughing Matters

Lance Morgan

Two of the sports world’s most visible people provided a nice lesson last week in the benefits and liabilities of using humor when speaking with the media.

In his annual Super Bowl press conference, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked about the conflict of interest inherent in the NFL’s paying for a law firm to investigate “deflategate.” Whatever you think of the question, recall that Tom Brokaw once said, “There are no bad questions. Only bad answers.” Goodell gave one. In his response, he rhetorically asked whether the inquiring reporter would pay for the investigation. In a private conversation, the remark would have been amusing and sensible. After all, if the NFL isn’t going to pay for the probe, would the media, or anyone else? But in the press conference setting, and uttered without the trace of a smile, Goddell’s answer was sarcastic, defensive and not at all funny – and he was pilloried for it.

On the other hand, Tiger Woods showed a lighter side that’s been frequently missing during his years of golf domination. Following a horrendous round of 82 (we should all have such troubles) at the Waste Management Open, Woods could have easily avoided the media – and probably would have not very long ago. Instead, he opened his press availability by saying “I’m only here to avoid the fine,” a quick-witted and laugh-out-loud funny reference to the Seattle Seahawk’s vocally challenged running back Marshawn Lynch. After an obviously painful round of golf, being able to laugh at yourself – and make others laugh with you – can’t help but make a positive impression and may be a sign that Woods realizes his image doesn’t just depend on what he does inside the ropes.

So if you’re keeping score at home, the results this week are: Self-deprecation 1, Sarcasm 0. Not a bad thing to remember to tell our clients.


International Trade in the 114th Congress: What to Expect

Jim Meszaros

Business groups and U.S. global companies start 2015 with optimism that the Obama administration and Congress can work together to address major items on the U.S. trade agenda this year.

The first task is for Congress to give President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) without ceding its own authority to shape agreements. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of House Ways & Means, both want to move TPA forward early in the session, to ensure the initiative is not overshadowed by other issues as the year progresses.

Simultaneously, the administration is working to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a comprehensive trade agreement being negotiated among 13 countries across the Pacific, by mid-year, so it can be submitted to the Congress for ratification. How quickly these talks are completed depends on whether the U.S. and Japan can agree on trade liberalization in key trade sectors, such as auto and agriculture.

With a new European Commission now in place, negotiations will also continue on the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Brussels. Progress has been slow on these talks, with the most difficult issues yet to be addressed.

Other items on the U.S. trade agenda include renewal of the expired Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program and the African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA), which expires in September. Congress must also reauthorize the Export-Import Bank’s charter by June 30. And USTR will be working to advance the post-Bali multilateral Doha agenda in time for an end-of-year WTO ministerial. Finally, as the administration moves ahead on agreements, they will want to demonstrate they are monitoring enforcement of trade laws, especially with respect to China.

Bilateral cooperation on trade this year will be dependent on larger issues dividing Democrats and Republicans, from immigration to health care and tax policy. Equally challenging, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress must build a coalition of pro-trade supporters within their own caucuses to patch together the majority needed advance legislative initiatives.

With the U.S. economy now in its sixth year of growth and job creation, companies and business groups say improving America’s global competitiveness should be at the center of U.S. policymaking in 2015 – and that includes jump-starting America’s trade agenda.


Cutting Through the Hype: A Data Science Primer for PR Pros (Part 1)

Chris Rottler

Whether you’re talking about big data, data science or analytics, one thing is clear: there is a lot of buzz and hype when it comes to gaining a competitive advantage from data. In this blog series, I want to focus on the potential of data – both big and small – and applications and approaches to quantitative analysis in the area of communications.

It’s not hard to see why there’s so much confusion around the utility of data. A quick review of the Harvard Business Review’s data analytics section, for example, reveals a volume of articles and perspectives that can leave even data scientists, let alone managers, not tuned in to the industry, confused.

To clear things up, let me first answer this: What makes big data distinct today?

There is some consensus – depending on who you ask – on what makes big data unique, and it comes down to the “Four V’s”: volume, the scale of the data; velocity, the rate at which data is generated and captured; variety, the different forms of data; and veracity, the uncertainty of the data available. Put simply, big data is distinct today because we are generating, analyzing and applying more data more quickly than ever before. To put this into perspective, we now create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. That is so much data so fast that it has been estimated that 90 percent of all the data in the history of the world has been created in the last two years alone.

Another important aspect is the affordability of capturing, storing and analyzing large data sets today. What was once only financially feasible to a handful of organizations is now a viable method of analysis to anyone who wants to make data-driven decisions.

So does a data set need to be big to derive any value? Of course not, and for the most part, the approaches to analyzing big and small data sets are similar, minus some technical considerations that are specific to working with big data.

So where does analytics fit into a communications campaign? Analytics can be broken down into three categories: descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analysis. These map to various communication activities, including – but not limited to – audience research, advanced segmentation, optimization and evaluation. In this blog series, I will discuss some of these areas in more detail and outline relevant approaches, whether it’s applying a data mining algorithm for advanced audience segmentation or using basic statistical analysis to measure content performance on social channels.

The veil of big data and data science is thick. Hopefully, this series will cut through some of the noise so PR pros can approach data systematically and use it as a strategic asset.


Energy and the Environment in the 114th Congress: What to Expect

John Files

With Republicans assuming solid majorities in both the Senate and the House, contentious national debates around energy and environmental policy will likely become more visible. They are also likely to be fueled by the competing pressures of increased expectations around global climate talks and oil prices that continue to decline. Here’s a look at some of the flash points and implications:

The Keystone XL pipeline has been cited as a policy priority by GOP leadership, with incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying it’s his first order of business. The related legislation is expected to pass, but the White House swiftly warned Congress on its first day in session that President Obama would veto it. The measure may be further complicated by a series of unrelated minority amendments or tied to another bill, such as the long-stalled energy efficiency bill first proposed by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) as a bipartisan measure or to a spending package. Such moves could make a presidential veto on the pipeline’s approval harder to justify.

Energy and environment committees in the Senate will now be chaired by Republicans. Energy and Natural Resources will be chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Environment and Public Works by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Murkowski has identified drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as an early focus; Inhofe is widely known for rejecting human influence on climate change. Watch for wrangling between the White House and Congress on major legislation that targets EPA climate regulations, boosts oil and gas drilling, expands natural gas and coal exports, cuts funding to environmental initiatives and reduces tax credits for renewable energy.

Global climate change will be a major component of the international policy landscape in 2015. The next round of negotiations related to a binding rule for countries to abate their greenhouse gas emissions is scheduled for Paris in December; in the wake of recent climate developments between the U.S. and China and the recent climate summit in Lima, an agreement is expected to be reached. Still, such a treaty is unlikely to pass the Senate. There are other hurdles too: conservative pushback could prove to be an obstacle to shaping American public attitudes toward the negotiations, and influential countries such as India are under heavy political pressure to prioritize economic development and alleviate energy poverty over mitigating climate change.

The Obama administration is moving on a number of high-profile environmental regulations, including those governing the use of coal ash and requiring a tighter standard for ozone. Notably, the EPA is writing new climate regulations, with a plan for existing power plants likely to be finalized by summer. Since all federal agencies operate under the authority of the executive office, the new Congressional balance will not directly affect the rules. But they will face legal battles in the coming years, and could be reversed if Americans elect a Republican president in 2016. Indeed, the Supreme Court this spring plans to consider arguments in a suit challenging EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

American financial services, entertainment companies and big-box retailers are not the only organizations grappling with cyber-security; the topic has long been at the forefront of multiple federal agencies with energy oversight, including the Department of Energy, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – especially surrounding electric transmission and generation. Given the risks that cyber-attacks pose on the electric grid and other infrastructure, and the crippling consequences of such attacks, regulators and lawmakers are expected to elevate energy-related security protocols in the coming year.

Adam Dolin contributed research to this article.


5 Things We Heard at Camp

Eben Gilfenbaum

Powell Tate team members attended Roots Camp earlier this month -- a two-day digital advocacy and fundraising “unconference” where the attendees set the agenda and lead the discussions. It’s an opportunity to hear from a diverse group of online campaigners about what’s working, what’s not, and what’s new.

The digital campaign space has matured to the point where there weren’t any major new breakthroughs on the agenda this year. Instead, many of the sessions we attended focused on refining strategies and tactics to mobilize more people more effectively around the causes they care about. Here are five great examples every organization running a campaign could benefit from:

1. Game the Facebook News Feed

Facebook may have slashed the number of followers organizations can reach without paid promotion, but there are still ways to maximize organic reach. According to a Facebook representative who presented, their algorithm monitors the types of content each user engages with — videos vs. photos vs. links — and populates their News Feed with their preferred types.

Organizations can take advantage of this fact by posting the same content in multiple formats. If you’re promoting a video, for example, post the video natively in Facebook like you would normally, but also create a second post using the link to the page on your website where the video resides. That way you’re maximizing your organic reach by catering to the video lovers and the link lovers among your followers.

2. Don’t Ask People to Tell Their Story

Asking supporters to share their story is a tried and true engagement tactic. But using the word “story” can actually decrease engagement because it can make people feel like you’re asking for a fully articulated beginning, middle, and end. Testing has found that asking supporters to share their “experience” performs better because it’s a word people can identify with more easily and doesn’t need to be presented in a formal structure.

3. Find the Right Amount of Creepy

Digital campaigns collect a trove of useful information about their advocates -- from the issues they care about to when and how they are most likely to take action. Organizations are often hesitant to use this information for fear of coming off as creepy. But like with anything involving communications, it’s all about knowing your audience and framing your ask accordingly.

Telling advocates you’ve noticed they’ve taken several actions around a piece of legislation, and should take action on a related issue can be effective with the right audience. But some people might find it too much like big brother. An alternative approach would be to tell advocates you need dedicated people like them to take action. That way you’ve framed what you know about them in a way that feels relevant and natural without being too forced. 

4. Compel, Don’t Just Tell

Whether you want your audience to write letters to their legislators or share a post with their friends, break-through campaigns rely on more than their call to action to get their message across. What sets a great campaign apart is powerful content that excites, inspires, and compels people to action without even needing to ask. Every time you create a piece of content, ask yourself whether your advocates would take action if you removed the call to action. If the answer is no, you may want to rethink your approach.

5. Go Beyond the Base

Any successful grassroots campaign needs to activate the base. Thanks to the democratization of powerful online targeting tools — from native Facebook targeting to turn-key analytics products that mine national voter files — campaigns can remain lean and efficient while branching out to acquire new supporters beyond their core audience. This is especially important for organizations working on popular issues where competition for the attention of the base can be fierce.

The key to successfully expanding beyond the base is to test content among a number of potential audiences and scale up your efforts for those groups that demonstrate interest at a reasonable cost.

A big thank you to Chris Collier, Michelle Crowson, Katie Lancos, Evan Von Leer, and Megan Wright who gave up their weekend to attend Roots Camp and who contributed to this post.


The Cutest Story Ever Told

Katie Hudson

What happens when the beloved story of Rudolph gets a furry feline twist? Watch multiple kittens brave the winter cold, make headlines, and ultimately deliver holiday joy.

A very big thanks to the Washington Humane Society for making this video possible. After viewing the video, be sure to visit to adopt a character of your own.

From all of us at Powell Tate, we wish you a very happy holiday season. 


Powell, Tate, and Ryan win big at PR News PR People Awards

Carolyn Sofman

This week, our founders, Jody Powell and Sheila Tate, were again honored for their significant contributions to public relations, public affairs and politics -- this time with induction into the PR News Hall of Fame. This recognition comes on the heels of their induction into the Hall of Fame of the Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter in September. Together, Jody and Sheila were an unstoppable duo committed to bipartisanship and civility; innovative thinking and exceptional client service; and perhaps most important, teaching and mentorship. Their vision, legacy and influence lives on here at Powell Tate.

We also want to applaud our colleague, Tim Ryan, who PR News named Public Affairs/Government Communicator of the Year for his work in leading the integrated, multi-media marketing and communications campaign to launch the Health Insurance Marketplace at He developed and managed a campaign that helped educate, engage and motivate more than 8 million uninsured Americans to find health care coverage.

Heartfelt congratulations to Jody (and his family), Sheila and Tim and thank you to PR News for recognizing their significant and lasting contributions to the communications profession.


Higher Education in the New Congress, Part II: Prospects for Progress

Michael Stopford

With the change in control of the Senate and Senator Lamar Alexander taking over at the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the prospects for progress, or for bipartisan accord, on higher education in the 114th Congress seem mixed. On the one hand, Sen. Alexander is highly knowledgeable about higher education and is respected within the sector, as well as having a reputation for bipartisan collaboration when need be. On the other hand, his staunch opposition to “government regulation” sets the scene for confrontation with the Obama administration over the President’s agenda to link federal student aid to college affordability and employment outcomes – even though the Administration may ultimately be able to proceed on these initiatives without Congressional agreement.

What does this mean for the various stakeholders in higher education?

  • Leaders of higher education institutions who oppose new “rankings” – who are probably in the majority – can take heart from the strengthened role of their new majority ally in the Senate
  • For-profit higher education leaders may have mixed prospects: Senator Alexander is anti-regulation but he has criticized the for-profit sector for poor programs
  • Data providers and companies promoting better student outcomes will find more support for the benefits they promise as opposed to highlighting data privacy issues

Overall, the higher education sector can expect to be the subject of intense political debate in the next Congress. There could be bipartisan accord on the objective of student outcomes; but there will probably be partisan disaccord on any new regulations to help achieve this. The cost and access crisis for higher education will continue and probably sharpen: we could see some dramatic responses from the new Republican leadership as well as from the Administration. The reputation and relative position of colleges, universities and other higher education providers across North America will be under scrutiny and competitive pressure as never before.


Higher Education in the New Congress, Part I

Michael Stopford

Photo by Alberto G.

The central, overarching problem facing higher education in the U.S. is its ever-rising cost. In the past, the wondrous diversity of American higher education seemed to set us apart from other countries, continue to promote the social opportunity underlying the American promise and add to our attraction as the global destination for students everywhere. Much of that vision seems empty today: private colleges are mostly beyond the reach of all but the wealthy, for-profit colleges are under attack for adding to debt without bringing employment and public universities – the education bedrock of the American dream – are constantly struggling with reduced funding from their state legislatures.

The Obama administration and Congress have been wrestling with these challenges – above all access and affordability – and the incoming Republican leadership will certainly give them priority attention. The spotlight will be on the Chairman-elect of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). No one can claim that the new Chairman is unfamiliar with the topic: after serving as Governor of Tennessee, he was President of the University of Tennessee (1988–1991), and U.S. Secretary of Education (1991–1993). Generally considered a political moderate, Sen. Alexander has broadly supported attempts to promote efficiencies, simplify regulation and improve outcomes from higher ed.

Senator Alexander can be expected to oppose some of the high-profile initiatives on costs and affordability already launched by the Obama administration, including:

  • A college ratings plan – a U.S. News & World Report-type ranking compiled by the government – based on data on graduation rates, earnings and debt;
  • A new regulation linking federal student aid to a threshold of debt to earnings for graduates of for-profit institutions.

Alexander and the Republican majority support:

  • Rolling back regulations, including redundancies identified by the ongoing Task Force on Government Regulation in Higher Education;
  • “Starting from scratch" on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act;
  • Reducing the overall number of student aid programs;
  • Reducing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) from 100 questions to just two: student household size and family income;
  • Proposing a budget containing $90 billion worth of cuts to the Pell program; and
  • Competency-based education reforms.

Tomorrow, we’ll examine what the change in Senate leadership is likely to mean for various stakeholders in higher education.

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